Author: Kate Forsyth
Publisher: Random House Australia
RRP: $32.95 (AUD)
Born with a good name, a plain face and an empty purse, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force dreams of a life where she might be free to use her gift with words, unburdened by the shackles of money troubles, forced marriage and social pretence.
When her scandalous life leads the Sun King, Louis XIV, to banish her from his court to a convent, she despairs of ever feeling alive again. Until a kind nun, Soeur Seraphina, taking pity on her, tells her a story of a young girl who, a hundred years before, was stolen from her family and locked away in a tower, all for a handful of bitter greens. The story you and I know as the fairytale Rapunzel…
How I liked it:
I know , I know. You ought not judge a book by its cover, but for me the cover of this one said it all. The illustration is sumptuous and dreamy. The full lips and lustrous red hair of the heroine on the front promise a tale of love, passion, tenderness and depth.
This book tackled an ancient story in a new way, lending it originality without giving away the characteristics that have made this age-old tale endure. Meticulously researched; beautifully written, it offered up vibrant, human characters and a rich tapestry of settings so vivid that at times I found it hard to tear myself away to complete ordinary essential tasks like, um, sleeping.
And ah!, the imagery. Forsyth has crafted gilded sentences to make her heroine – a 17th century French novelist and wit – proud. She has a particular way with similes. A standout for me was the description of the Sun King’s facial hair:
…his upper lip adorned by a mere smear of a moustache, which looked as if a bootboy had pressed his dirty thumbs into the flesh above his red pouting lips.
Particularly admirable is the way Forsyth weaves three distinct stories into a single, coherent tale – much like the strands of Rapunzel’s own braid are woven into the single rope that provides passage to her tower.
Forsyth’s sense of voice is clear and unfaltering for each of the three women whose perspective we take at varying times throughout the novel, and she manages the temporal shifts without the leap from one to another feeling like artifice. Spanning so many years can admittedly make the timeline confusing at times, but a date and location stated at the start of each chapter help make the transitions manageable.
There are fantastical elements to the story of course. A sorceress, black magic. In these Forsyth – a reputed fantasy author – is at ease. But if, like me, you have never particularly sought out the fantasy genre, have no fear. This novel shows that Forsyth is as at home in the realms of historical fiction and literature in general as she is in the world of witches and spells. This is, simply, a beautiful and enjoyable work of the imagination, accessible to all.
For thoughts on what I took from Bitter Greens about storytelling generally, see my next post, to come anon.
EDIT: You can also read this review on Pages & Pages Booksellers’ reader blog, right here. Thanks to Jon Page for posting it!